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Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Time for Purposeful Action to End Sexual Violence in Conflict

“Sexual violence, and the long shadow of terror and trauma it casts, disproportionately affects women and girls.” These stark words appear in UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s recently released report on sexual violence during conflict. On Thursday, February 23rd, I attended the UN Security Council’s open debate convened to consider this report, which documents brutal mass rapes, deliberate attacks on civilians and forced virginity tests on peaceful protestors, amongst other atrocities.

The report reflects findings made in the previous months by the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) on Sexual Violence in Conflict. It not only identifies violations, but documents some of the progress that has been made in conflict and postconflict areas. The report also discusses sexual violence that has occurred in countries in political transition. Unfortunately, it is silent on violations in a handful of countries where there are ongoing, troubling levels of sexual violence, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Amina Meghreibi, a Libyan women’s rights and democracy activist speaking on behalf of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Working Group on Women, Peace and Security—of which the Women’s Refugee Commission is an active member—was the sole civil society representative addressing the Council. In its statement, the NGO Working Group urged the Security Council to prioritize the prevention of sexual violence, ensure a survivor-centric approach and strengthen its efforts to hold perpetrators accountable. The Council can do this by more effectively utilizing tools already at its disposal. To prevent this violence, the Council can better employ political, financial and technical tools, including early warning mechanisms. An effective survivor-centric approach—focused on the women who suffered the violence—demands that health care services be provided when they are needed, including mental health care. And true accountability means ending impunity for all of those individuals who sanction and perpetrate sexual violence.

The Council also addressed the mandate of the office of the SRSG for Sexual Violence in Conflict, currently held by Margot Wallström. This post was created to coordinate with numerous UN agencies and peacekeeping missions, governments, NGOs and local community groups to monitor and fight sexual violence. While some delegates were troubled by what they saw as the SRSG office’s “overreach” by reporting on situations of political transition that was accompanied by violence, the Women’s Refugee Commission was pleased that the Presidential Statement, which emerged from the Council’s debate, commended her work.

As Ambassador Anderson of Ireland said in her statement at the debate, the challenge before the Council was “to ensure that our outrage translates into determined and purposeful action.” Purposeful action means much better access to services for survivors and much greater attention to prevention efforts, including the development of safe and effective livelihoods to help protect and empower women and girls. Purposeful action also means focused attention to the needs of displaced and refugee women and girls who are at particularly high risk of sexual violence and often have great difficulty accessing quality health care and services.

The Women’s Refugee Commission would have preferred a much stronger Presidential Statement from the Security Council at the close of the debate given the critical issues at stake. After all, when countries fail to protect women and girls, provide services to survivors or prosecute perpetrators, they make it less likely that a lasting peace will be secured and development will take hold. Over the next year, we look to the UN and Member States to live up to the Council’s commitment “to employ all means at its disposal to address conflict-related sexual violence” and provide survivors with the services and support that is their right and support actions to end the widespread impunity that perpetrators currently enjoy.

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence